Resolving the conflict between police and reoffending targets has benefited several agencies and, most of all, young offenders, says Dean Woodward
Youth custody rates in England and Wales are falling. There are now 2,074 young people in custody; this time last year there were 2,574.
So why a fall of 500 in one year? There are some differences of opinion between the past and present chairs of the Youth Justice Board. Current chair Frances Done has attributed the reduction to the work in preventing first-time entrants coming into the youth justice system.
She also credits the intensive supervision and surveillance programme (ISSP) for the reduction. Former chair Rod Morgan attributes the reduction to a change in Home Office targets for the police that has removed the incentive to criminalise young people.
The strategy for cutting the number of first-time entrants is brilliant. But it is most effective when supporting young people with the least challenges. Most young people in custody are arrested more than once and are not easily diverted at this early stage. With about three years under the bridge since the first-time entrant strategy began, it is early to be attributing the reduction in custody to it.
The ISSP is, in my view, the most innovative and creative strategy in the youth justice system in England and Wales. It is an invaluable tool in supporting the most challenging and vulnerable young offenders. I have no doubt that ISSP has prevented many young people entering custody.
The problem with attributing the reduction in custody to the ISSP in 2009-10 is that the programme has been running for eight years. In six of these, youth custody figures have risen. Unless we have witnessed the world’s longest bedding-in process, ISSP is not the reason behind the marked reduction last year.
You have probably used your powers of elimination to guess that I am attributing the reduction in the number of youth custody rates (and adult custody rates) to the Home Office scrapping police targets for offences brought to justice last year which incentivised the criminalising of young people.
Which begs the question: if the Home Office had the targets of reducing youth custody (before it was split, with youth justice moved to the Ministry of Justice) why then did the Home Office also have the conflicting targets for the police to bring more children into the criminal justice system, thus increasing youth custody rates?
How many hours have youth offending teams spent trying to develop strategies to reduce custody rates? How many hours were spent implementing the strategies? Or reviewing and evaluating the strategies to reduce custody rates?
How many resources were consumed resettling such large numbers of young offenders from custody to ensure they did not reoffend again? When all the time youth custody was going up because the police had a numerical target defining their performance that directly led to the criminalising of children.
There is no denying that cutting first-time entrants will improve the life of thousands of young people emerging into adulthood without criminal records of minor offences. There is a mountain of evidence on the effectiveness of ISSP in rehabilitating young offenders while they remain in the community.
But such a significant reduction has most likely been achieved simply by the deletion of a target.
Dean Woodward is assistant director of Lambeth Specialist Youth Services
This article is published in the 13 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Surprising reason behind the falling youth custody rates